In search of the Pura Vida (Pacific and Central Costa Rica)

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September 10th 2010
Published: September 14th 2010
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(Day 889 on the road)We had been a little apprehensive about Costa Rica, the Rich Coast as he name translates (named so for the gold found here during the Spanish occupation in the 16th century). All we knew was that the country was, in comparison to the other countries in Central America, overrun by tourists, most of them vacationers from the USA and Europe, who are attracted to the country by its (perceived) better security situation.

And lured here by Costa Rica's relentless eco-tourism and nature ("Pura Vida" - pure life) advertisement I should add - the country is banking heavy on the responsible, sustainable nature card. At times it seems as if every idiot operating in the tourism sector has jumped onto the bandwagon and renamed his business Eco-Lodge-this or Eco-business-that. If even tour-bus companies run adverts claiming that they are operating "carbon neutral" (as we saw in the Manual Antonio area), I start to get a little suspicious.

There are certainly good examples of the whole matter here, but all in all it seems that this heavily advertised proclaimed environmental awareness only allows many businesses to charge higher prices for their services, with eco-friendly foreigners not minding too much what they pay. After all, it's for the environment, so paying a little more is probably money well-spent. Think again - and the next time you see such an ad here in Costa Rica, have a laugh and ask them why exactly they are an "Eco-Lodge" as opposed to a normal lodge. At best, they will tell you that they recycle their rubbish (which then ends up in the same landfill dump later-on). Most likely however, they will be lost for words, or respond with a bunch of meaningless nonsense ("ah, we are located in the jungle, and there is so much nature here, just look around mister!"). Bollocks. We have become extremely weary of the whole issue.

In fact, the very first thing we saw after crossing into Costa Rica from neighbouring Honduras were people throwing their plastic rubbish (bottles, bags etc) out the window of our bus. More of the same, just as in all countries we have travelled through since Mexico. Later we would see the same rubbished-lined streets, beaches and rivers that have become a part of everyday life over the past four month in the region. To be fair however, there does seem to be less rubbish lying around here than in countries further north, and even rubbish bins in the cities.

The other thing we quickly noticed was how much more developed, and, in many ways, organised, Costa Rica was. This has certainly to do with the increased wealth of the country: Costa Rica is considerably richer than its neighbours, a result both of smart governments, a notable absence of dictators, only a smallish civil war (2000 lives were lost), little foreign meddling, constantly flowing tourism dollars, and a close economic affiliation with the USA.

The flip-side of the coin, at least from a backpacker's point of view, is that Costa Rica is far more expensive than the other countries in Central America. Especially accommodation and food are much dearer, for basic things at least double, often even three times the price. In tourist areas, prices are even less good value, a result of people on a two week vacation don't minding too much what they pay for things, since they have invested so much already by flying here for their holiday and, quite understandably, want to do and see things. But of course there is no point in complaining and we just have to take things as they are, trying to keep costs down as sensibly as possible without missing out too much.

But not too sound too negative here: Costa Rica has so far surprised us on more than one occasion with its diversity and natural beauty, and travelling in the off-season has helped us to keep costs down quite a bit as well. The border crossing from Nicaragua was lengthy, chaotic and full of rip-offs, albeit all on the Nicaraguan side. First they charged an entrance fee into the actual immigration area (this was a first amongst all the rip-offs I have come across over time), then guys on the street tried to sell us the immigration forms (which we didn't pay for of course as they were given away for free by the officials later on), then the immigration officer charged us to leave the country (after they had already charged us 12 US$ to enter the country a few weeks earlier). Not the best impression this left with us I have to say, dear Nicaragua.

Our first point of call in Costa Rica, after a forced one night stop-over in Liberia after our latish border-crossing, was the cool mountainous village of Santa Elena near Monteverde. The region is one of the prime tourist draw-cards of the country (cloud forest & lots of outdoor activities), and we braced ourselves for hordes and hordes of vacationers in rental jeeps spending big dollars and driving up costs. But we got probably as lucky as we could get. While we indeed caught a hitch in the rental jeep of a well-off Spanish couple, decked out in expensive outdoor clothes, Monteverde itself was suspiciously devoid of tourists, as we happened to arrive in the off season.

One day prior to our arrival, the town had switched their fixed cartel-like accommodation rates to low-season prices. Rates for rooms were down by roughly two thirds, from 25 US dollars per person to 8 US dollars per person. Still a lot more than in other countries here, but less than anticipated. And what luxury the piping hot shower at our tranquil hostel proved to be - the first in I-don't know how many weeks or months.

We spent our days enjoying the lush nature and the coolish mountain climate - Tino hiked through the cloud forest, I enjoyed a tour of a working coffee/ sugar-cane plantation and the thrill of another canopy zipline (the highlight being strapped to the one kilometre long and 100 metre high cable from my back, zipping above the landscape face-down, superman-style). It was pretty thrilling, but the scenery was nothing compared to the beautiful zipline I did a few month ago above stunning Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. That's one of the "problems" for me in travelling for an extended period of time (I mentioned this in an earlier post I believe) - always comparing one experience or sight with a prior one, thus often not being able to take things at face value and just enjoying them. Gotta stop this!

Travelling across Costa Rica, in general and also onto our next destination, the beautiful national park of Manual Antonio on the pacific coast, was much harder than expected however. Hitch hiking was very difficult to say the least, worlds apart from how smooth it has been in all other countries in Central America so far. Added to the fact that almost nobody stopped to give us a lift, buses were very thin, with even popular destinations often only served by two or three buses a day. Even worse, many of the buses don't stop for passengers along the way - a thing unheard of in most developing nations, where the buses typically stop everywhere and anywhere for passengers. This is all a real shame, as it makes our travelling - and the general way we approach things here in Costa Rica - less spontaneous, requiring more planning and commitments.

It seems that as Costa Rica got richer, more people were able to afford cars, lowering the number of people utilising public transport, in turn thinning out bus frequencies, and also increasing the security concern of the people who are less willing to stop for hitch hikers. A vicious cycle. At least I am travelling as light as possible by now, having swapped my 65-litre backpack for a small 35-litre version a few weeks ago as Kristina went home. I should have really done this much earlier; even the 35-litre backpack I travel with now is only two-thirds full at most, even with food and water (but minus my hiking boots and my long trousers, now it is shorts and sandals only every day).

Anyway, after a full and very hot day of travelling to cover no more than 200 kilometres from Monteverde to Manual Antonio, we got there in the end. And we arrived just in time for the one day a week the park was closed (Mondays). Great. So after hanging around for a day in the sleepy town of Quepos near the entrance to the park doing nothing much at all - and contemplating whether we should just move on and being very glad afterwards that we didn't - we spent a great day inside the park on Tuesday.

Manual Antonio It is the most frequently national park in Costa Rica, both due to its proximity to the capital, San Jose, but also for its outstanding beauty. We saw lots and lots of wildlife (aggressive white-faced monkeys, huge iguanas,cheeky raccoons, even a sloth), all in a tropical setting right by the ocean with picture-perfect white beaches and complete with pounding waves to spend hours in. What a great day!

Moving away from the coast and into the interior of the Costa Rica and spending a day in San Jose (a dull city without any attractions and overpriced accommodation), we soon fond ourselves in the sleepy city of Turrialba. Turriabla itself is nothing special, but it is the jumping-off point for whitewater rafting on the nearby Pacuare river, apparently the number five river in the world for rafting. I have no idea what that means or how they measure these things (beauty of the river, frequency of rapids etc), but I do know that we had a splendid time on the water.

We shared a boat with three friendly Italian guys and an almost experienced guide (he managed to have us hit a massive rock right in the middle of the river at one point, forcing us all do disembark onto the rock we hit while he pulled the boat free), and we enjoyed every minute of it. It was way better than the rafting we had done in La Ceiba in Honduras a month ago or so (ups, another not intended comparison with a previous experience), and we were very glad to have done it again. For four full hours we were rafting through many Class III and some fierce Class IV rapids over a stretch of 25 kilometres, through the lushest jungle imaginable, miles away from civilisation. Well

And now, we are once again heading over to the Caribbean side of things, eager to see what this part of Costa Rica has to offer to the demanding tourist...

Next stop: Parismina (Costa Rica).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


14th September 2010

What surprises me is your talent to catch a beautiful moment on a pic, do you hold the cam nonstop in your hands (or around your neck? Prob not...), how do you do that! I love your pictures! Keep enjoying central America!
15th September 2010

Sometimes I just think what you feel about doing trip in almost a thousand days without going home at all. Dont you miss your room? OMG, I cant imagine. But your story always waowwww. Thaks alot for sharing it with me. Regards from indonesia
15th September 2010

Yeah! Pura vida! I Love Costa Rica!!! Hug a slough for me, please! -Uh, already been to "Corals and Almonds Lodge" in... hmmm...where was that...??carribbean coast-side.. Great canopy, great wildlife, great hangout-place at the natural beach... I'm deeply jealous and wish I could be there, too! ;o)
17th September 2010

Sex tourism
Keep an eye out for it on the Carribean side...
17th September 2010

I was just updating some back blogs and uploading some pics, I'm in Costa rica now my 3rd month..and was looking at recent blogs about Nicaragua and came accross yours, I just HAD to write you and say THANK YOU for your spiel on religion and volunteering!!!!!!! I am the same exact way! it's truly terrible what these missionaries and "volunteers" do to vulnerable people, anyways Just thought that was great what you wrote!! P.S. be ready for american prices here in costa rica ( except for lodging, cabs and cigs lol) I CANNOT wait to leave lol!! happy trips man, add me if you would like as costa rica was my rest period from the states before I start my travels... Greg
2nd February 2011

Blog of the Year, 2010
Congratulations! :) This blog has been nominated one of the best of 2010, in the central and south American/writing category.
28th February 2011

central america house
I have been studying your travel blogs on Central America. If you only had $10000-$20000 to spend do you know of houses for sale in Central America with electric water and high speed and cable tv? Which places did you like best between Guatamala, Honduras, Nicaragua or El Salvador or Mexico? Do you remember specific places where you thought the place was nice enough and there were inexpensive houses? Please reply. Thank You
4th October 2011
Manuel Antonio NP main beach

Manuel Antonio
great beach, lots of tourists though as can be expected! but nonetheless nice place
1st March 2013
Iguana at Manuel Antonio NP

... Could it be a 'monitor lizard' instead?

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